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Why are professional development standards for new and returning federal MPs so inadequate?

How well prepared are federal MPs to undertake the arduous tasks that will confront them daily? AAP/Mick Tsikas

Why are professional development standards for new and returning federal MPs so inadequate?

MPs and senators, 226 in all, will soon commence proceedings in Australia’s newly elected 45th federal parliament. But how well prepared are they to undertake the arduous tasks that will confront them daily?

To address that question, a starting point might be to examine the formal education and training programs newly elected MPs are compelled to undertake to acquaint themselves with the intricacies of their role. For re-elected members, one might analyse the programs they are required to attend to further their knowledge, skills and abilities.

Unfortunately, this is not possible. Unlike all professions and many occupations, it is not mandatory for MPs to take part in any education and training programs specific to their role.

I am not advocating an education bar for candidates; all Australians, regardless of education, wealth or supposed status, should be eligible to stand for election. The parliament would be more representative and perhaps more effective if diversity among MPs were greater.

Nor am I advocating that MPs should be obliged to undertake the level of education and training required by professions and most occupations before their members are able to practice. But MPs’ professional development, once elected to office, requires reform.

What is an MP’s role?

The 45th federal parliament will include many new MPs. Several others will be junior ministers, ministers or shadow ministers for the first time. Some will be taking on responsibility for a totally different portfolio or shadow portfolio.

This group of MPs, like those elected before them, have been entrusted, in their role as “legislator”, with the power to make laws applicable to all Australians. Their entrusted power includes the ability to pass laws that can deprive a person of their freedoms and subject them to life-changing economic and social policies.

But an MP’s role goes beyond legislative work. It includes other important functions, broadly classified as “representative” and “scrutiniser”.

MPs are expected to perform all three roles simultaneously and under continuous media scrutiny. They must also deal with “wicked problems” and are expected to resolve them.

Given these circumstances, is it unreasonable to expect that, once elected to office, this influential group of legislators, representatives and scrutinisers should be required to undertake education and training, including in-depth programs for new members, higher-order programs for those taking on senior positions for the first time, and continuous professional development programs for those who have occupied senior positions for some time?

The concerning reality is MPs are not compelled to attend an induction program, although virtually all do. But the induction programs for MPs and senators can present only a brief overview of what their multifaceted role entails.

Follow-up performance development opportunities, offered by both houses, are often poorly attended. Some attract the interest of fewer than 20 MPs.

MPs are busy people, but they are not alone in being time-poor. Many people experience competing demands on their limited time in multifaceted jobs. A difference between many of them and MPs is that members of professions and many occupations would not be permitted to practise unless they had first attended a comprehensive induction program that covered, in some depth, all facets of their job.

It is highly unlikely that people in other professions and occupations would be promoted to a senior position unless they had first acquired many of the skills needed to be an effective leader. Acquiring those skills includes attending formal education and training programs specific to their role.

An inadequate approach

The argument put forward by many MPs is they learn best on the job and through mentoring programs.

Learning on the job is a necessary element of performance development, but is not sufficient on its own. Nor are mentoring programs. The latter can only be as good as the mentors’ work ethic, the time they have available to devote to the mentoring and – most importantly – their ethical values.

Imagine the learning outcome if a mentor MP’s ethical values were based on the “whatever it takes” principle. This type of attitude by some MPs accounts, in large part, for the ever-widening trust deficit between those who are given the privilege of serving the people and those who granted them that privilege.

In debating whether MPs should be formally required to undertake education and training programs, it is worth remembering that once a person takes on the role of MP they are:

Neither ‘ordinary citizens’ nor experts but simply full-time politicians.

But becoming a full-time politician does not automatically endow a newly elected MP with the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to be a competent legislator, representative and scrutiniser. Nor does being promoted to a senior political position bestow on a MP the skill-set needed to perform a demanding leadership role effectively.

Learning primarily through “osmosis” is not an option in today’s rapidly changing, knowledge-based and globalised world. Should it be for MPs?

The laissez-faire approach to enhancing the knowledge, skills and abilities of our elected representatives does not appear to be adequate, especially when you take into account that MPs constitute the supreme decision-making body in Australia’s political system.

Is it unreasonable to expect that this small group of 226 MPs be required to attend continuous performance development programs designed specifically to enhance the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to make more informed decisions on our behalf?

Even if the answer is a resounding yes, only MPs have the power to introduce such a policy. But will they?